TORONTO - When award-winning Canadian filmmaker Paul Saltzman was first asked to produce a feature documentary on HIV-AIDS in Canada, he was intrigued by the subject but politely turned down the project, citing a lack of time.
But when the Canadian AIDS Society told him how many Canadians, especially young Canadians, were still getting infected, Saltzman was shocked. His answer to their request: "I'm in."
Thirty-one years after the emergence of the then-always-fatal disease, infections with human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, remain surprisingly high.
Worldwide, more than 60 million people have been infected with HIV and about 30 million people have died of AIDS.
In Canada, more than 13,500 have died of the disease.
About 68,000 Canadians are infected with HIV — 44 per cent of them are men who have sex with men; 21 per cent are IV drug users; and 28 per cent are women. In 2008, 26.5 per cent of people who tested HIV-positive were young Canadians aged 15 to 29.
But perhaps the most shocking statistic to Saltzman was that about one-quarter of people with HIV have no idea they are infected.
"The reason I'm doing this is I think it's a ticking time bomb," he said Tuesday during an interview in downtown Toronto.
"It's a geometric progression: if one person is infected, that person can infect others ... And if you actually don't know you're carrying it ... I think it's just incredibly important to do as social responsibility. So for me, it's about my own social activism."
Saltzman is an Emmy award-winning film and TV producer-director, who has made more than 300 documentaries and dramas. His 2008 documentary feature "Prom Night In Mississippi," with Morgan Freeman, looks at the state of racial prejudice in the U.S. southern state.
In his most recent production, "The Last White Knight," Saltzman returns to Mississippi, where he was a civil rights activist during the 1960s. The film documents his encounter with a KKK member who had assaulted him during that period, exploring racism and the possibility of reconciliation.
"ReIGNITE," the title of the HIV-AIDS documentary, is an extension of Saltzman's social activism, again seen through the camera lens.
The documentary will include 15 vignettes, each roughly four to six minutes long, which will tell the stories of HIV and AIDS in Canada, today and over the last three decades since the epidemic began.
"And those vignettes would be portraits of the life and feelings and the situations around HIV," said Saltzman, whose passion for the project is evident.
"So it would be street workers, it would be people infected, people not infected, researchers, high society, low society, across religions, across ethnic groups. Because it affects everyone.
"So from my point of view, it really should reflect Canada in all its diversity by who's on camera."
Three of the vignettes have been filmed, including one featuring Evelyn Farha of Montreal, whose son Ron died of AIDS at age 36, almost 20 years ago. He had started the Farha Foundation aimed at preventing the spread of HIV, work that his mother continues to this day.
In one poignant moment, 86-year-old Farha says: "I've lived 50 years more than my son."
The other two narratives feature a woman and her son. The woman was in a relationship with a man from New York and unknowingly got infected with HIV. She later got involved with a new partner, got pregnant and gave birth to her son. He was born infected with HIV.
Saltzman said the vignettes will give the audience a thoughtful, in-depth look at the face of HIV-AIDS. These capsules could also be shared through social media, put on cellphones and disseminated to young people through schools.
"And all of them are little movies. They're all little films. They have a beginning, middle and end, and they're dramatic."
The next pieces of the puzzle involve finding the dollars to fund production of "ReIGNITE" and figuring out how to get the most exposure for the documentary's message.
The producers — Saltzman's company Sunrise Films and partner Associated Producers — would like to see "ReIGNITE" play in movie theatres, but they also hope to secure a Canadian broadcaster that would help fund the project and air it upon completion.
Saltzman also hopes to include Canadian celebrities in the film, who could help draw attention to the project. He said fellow filmmakers David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan have agreed to contribute if their "crazy" schedules permit.
"The object is to wake people up," Saltzman said.
Monique Doolittle-Romas, CEO of the Canadian AIDS Society, said the documentary is "a dream" that was sparked last year by the organization's 25th anniversary and the 30th anniversary of the HIV-AIDS epidemic.
"The Canadian story of HIV and AIDS has not been told," she said. "We have amazing pioneers, people living with HIV, researchers in Canada doing work in Canada and internationally.
"But it's not documented anywhere. We need to have this documented. We need to talk about the work we're doing here in Canada. We need to talk about it and get that information out to people."
Doolittle-Romas agreed that the public may have become complacent about HIV-AIDS, especially since the development of antiretroviral drugs, which don't cure the infection but keep it under control and prevent potentially deadly AIDS-related infections and cancers.
Even so, not every infected person responds well to the drugs and they can cause a number of nasty side-effects for those who do.
"I don't think we talk about HIV and AIDS the way we used to," she said. "When you go back to the '80s and the '90s, there were ad campaigns, people were talking about HIV and AIDS, we received information in school. It was much more a topic of discussion.
"Unfortunately, it isn't nowadays. I think we've almost become complacent."
Still, there does appear to be a resurgence of interest in HIV-AIDS, especially in focusing on the early years of the epidemic, when the mysterious disease struck terror into the gay community, which seemed inexplicably to be its major target.
The play "The Normal Heart," which chronicles the rise of AIDS in New York City in the 1980s, was recently restaged in Toronto; John Irving's latest book "In One Person" deals in part with the onset of the epidemic; "How to Survive a Plague" documents how AIDS activists pressured government to expedite treatments; and an upcoming film "The Dallas Buyers Club," starring Matthew McConaughy, tells the story of a tough Texan diagnosed with AIDS in 1986 who uses alternative drugs and smuggles them to other people with AIDS.
While any uptick in interest is heartening, Saltzman said more needs to be done to prevent people — and young people especially — from seeing HIV-AIDS as a concern of the past that poses no threat in the present.
That means getting funding so he can finish the documentary and get it out to the public.
So does he have a target date for completion?
"Yesterday," he says bluntly.
"That's the truth," Saltzman says, "because people are getting HIV today."
"I'm dying to get this made and out there to save lives and illness ... This is a story that must be told."